Painting in the Moonlight

Submitted into Contest #117 in response to: Set your story at the boundary between two realms.... view prompt

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Fiction Suspense Thriller

Moonlight basked the entirety of the mysterious, oil painting through the castle tower windows. Its oak-carved, intricate frame towered over Lady Margaret. Her mouth hung in awe at its majesty. Tiny hairs on her neck stood tall. The oil artwork depicted a solid, wooden bridge spanning a broad chasm. A large, handmade sign in red letters indicating DO NOT ENTER had been painted near the bridge’s entrance. The backside of an identical sign stood on the chasm’s far side.

Lady Margaret had waited for this moment after obtaining the dead king’s stolen journal. Weeks had passed as she deciphered a portion of its secrets, awaiting the moon’s perfect lighting. She pressed her index finger against the decorated canvas. Her digit effortlessly passed beyond the fabric. Strong breeze sensations registered against her skin. Her finger’s oil-painted representation manifested onto the mural. She eased her hand further through the canvas until her elbow remained. The painting adapted to her actions. The oil version of her arm came into sight. Lady Margaret’s eyes grew large. The depiction showed her appendage several decades younger than the one she knew with spotty, nearly translucent skin. She pulled her limb back into the room, seeing no injury. Her view swept the painting, assessing its integrity for damage. The canvas remained untouched with no depiction of her body. The Duchess’s father was right, she thought with a satisfying smile.  

The older woman shuffled a pulley rope, dropping a large cloth over the artwork. Dust sprinkles floated through the moonlight. She panned around the room, taking stock of numerous enchanted items in the rounded room. A self-rotating silver globe, levitating books, a forever lit golden candle, and a radiating, red apple under a glass dome. She made a mental treasure list to explore after the painting’s mysteries had been solved.

One more full moon this month and then I’ll need to wait until the next cycle, she thought sneaking down the dark stairwell. She cracked the door open into the long castle hall. An armed guard snoozed steps away from the reinforced tower entrance. Lady Margaret eased the door shut inches from a spear’s end resting diagonally off his thigh. She re-secured the lock from a key off of Lord Heilen’s stolen ring. Fresh guilt consumed her heart. She awaited the blacksmith to finish her own tower key copy later the next morning. She hated holding the stolen items. Her legs groaned as she snuck through the hallway.

Lady Margaret laid in her bed looking up at her room’s darkness. Her mind raced, pushing away natural slumber. How did my arm pass through the canvas without making contact, she wondered. Lady Margaret planned to retest the phenomena against tomorrow’s moonlight. She spent the summer night in thought. Daybreak hints brushed the sky beyond the kingdom’s border as her eyes closed. She awoke to her assistant’s knock. The door creaked open.

“Madame, it’s time to wake for the day.” The servant moved into the room behind a candle’s glow. She prepared bedroom logs and tinder within the charred fireplace. Lady Margaret peeked from under the light cotton blanket, carrying her fatigue like an anchor.

“Come back later, girl. I didn’t sleep well and need rest.”

“Madame, the Duchess has called her full court. Her father’s diary has gone missing. Her Heiness is in quite a rage.” The young woman tended an infant fire. Burning wood scents filled the room. How could she know the diary is gone so soon? Lady Margaret worked through fatigue to hide her budding panic.

“What did she say? Be specific.” Labored words crawled from her lips.

“Madame, she forced her servants to upend the Royal Library in search of her father’s journal. She demanded every noble arrive in the throne room for further inquiry this morning. She instructed her personal guards to shackle anyone who refuses.”

Lady Margaret bolted up, splaying out her blanket. With a local border uprising, she hadn’t expected the Duchess to seek out her father’s book anytime soon. Her options floated through a fatigue jelly. I could give the book back which would end my life or I could leave the journal somewhere to be found. Lady Margaret longed for one more night with the painting before the moon waned. The journal provided invaluable information about the next progressions. Her limited private time-restricted her ability to decipher the obscure codes. Having cracked a third of his text barely allowed for last night’s discovery. Or I could see how this plays out and leave the book to be found after I finish my tests. 

“Tell the Duchess’s lady-in-waiting that I slept poorly and require time to get ready for court, peasant. When that is done, bring up porridge, barley bread, and a cup of mead.”

“Yes, madame.” Her servant hastily exited the room, closing the heavy door behind her.

Lady Margaret realized that she needed to hide the stolen items before the Duchess demanded a quarter’s search. The day had arrived much too early for her liking. Lady Margaret reluctantly began the process of dressing within the firelight. Her servant arrived as Lady Margaret prepared to ease on her second leather boot.

“It’s about time, peasant. Did you get lost in a dragon’s belly?”

“No, madame. I’m sorry for the delay.” The usual flush color drained from her cheeks. She hurried the breakfast tray to a small wooden table.

“What’s the matter with you, girl?”

“The Royal Curator is dead.” Her words painted in shock.

“What?” Lady Margaret’s face transformed into the same pale color. The boot dropped from her grip. “How?”

“I was told that the Duchess met with a few nobles who were available. Lord Heilen couldn’t answer the Duchess’s questions about his missing keyring. She warned him several times to answer. He finally said, ‘I have no more information about my missing keys than you do about the person who killed your father.’ The Duchess drew her guard’s sword… and ran him through.” The girl cried into her palms.

Lady Margaret sought solace behind her closed eyes. Deep guilt embraced her troubled heart. Her temporary theft of the keys had sealed his fate. She gripped a thick vine of resolve to right her emotions. “He shouldn’t have said such a thing. He will be missed.”

“The Duchess has instructed her Man-at-Arms to seal every castle exit.”

The young woman began to sob harder.

“Yes, we will miss Lord Heilen, peasant.”

Her servant wailed without pause.

“Why is it you cry so hard over someone you didn’t know.”

Aidith looked at her lady above rolling tears. “She ordered the Master Chemist to begin producing enough pitch to scorch the city unless her father’s book is returned by tomorrow morning…”

“No, that’s not possible,” Lady Margaret’s breath caught. She knew the Duchess’s resolve too well.

“My parents, my sister…” The servant lost her voice.

“The Duchess is upset. She won’t actually burn the city. From whom will she get her taxes and food if the city burns?” Lady Margaret sold false logic to the upset girl. The older woman believed the Duchess’s ultimatum. Lady Margaret never believed that the matriarch would care so much about the journal. Her error in judgment cost an innocent man his life and now threatened the city outside.

“Leave me be so I can finish dressing and eat as I mourn.” She snapped.

The servant hurried out of the room. Lady Margaret secured the journal and keys in a stone trap next to the fireplace with a small statue above the stone. She finished dressing, unable to stomach eating. The halls were abuzz with intrigue as she made her way into the grand room. She interjected herself into the royal line gathered within the guarded Royal Hall. The Duchess called Lady Margaret before the stone dais. The noblewoman curtsied in front of the throne.

“Have you seen or know the whereabouts of my father’s diary, Royal Vinter?”

“No, Your Highness. I don’t know its whereabouts.” She gripped her trembling hands. Sweat beads took shape under her graying hairline.

The Duchess looked at her with particular interest. “As I will tell all my subjects today, position or past loyalties will not save the thief after my inquiry has been completed.” She paused for a greater effect. “If you admit to the crime now, I will consider the kingdom’s leniency. I ask you once more, Lady Margaret,” the Duchess leaned forward. “Do you know where my father’s book is?” Her eyes locked ahead.

“No, Your Highness.” Lady Margaret held her paper-thin composure.

The Duchess studied her. She sat back. “I have ordered a full castle search. Pray they don’t find the book in your room,” she said through a sneer.

“I’m confident they won’t, Your Highness.” The Duchess waved her back into line. The trembling woman curtsied as she moved through the waiting group. The next noble attended to the dais. “Have you seen…”

Lady Margaret spent her exhausted day in the wine room among its vats and bottles. The calming crushed grapes scent helped ease her jaded nerves. She split her extended day’s attention between managing the busy workers and her trembling hands. She headed back to her room after a social dinner in the Main Hall. Several nobles took her time with their own distress.

Moonlight teased her at long intervals through the lamplit halls. Lady Margaret longed to sleep. If I can discover what I need to know tonight, then I can leave the book to be found and spare the city’s destruction. She opened her bedroom door with a candle. She furrowed her brow at her personal furniture laying strewn around the carpeted stone. Lady Margaret walked towards her hidden trove to assure its presence. Several, panicked knocks banged on her door. She jumped. Her heart sunk.

“Come in,” her voice registered the last fragile threads of confidence. She imagined armed guards with orders to drag her into the dungeon.

Aidith burst through the doorway. Her cheeks wore red. Her words struggled for freedom.

“Madame… they’re coming for… you. Someone said… they saw you recently… sneaking into the Royal Library.” She fought against her nearly empty lungs. “The guards… are on their way.”

“Go. Go and buy me time. I must take my leave.” Aidith bounded out of the room, down the hallway. Lady Margaret scrambled to her fireplace. She shoved the journal and keys into a nearby leather satchel, fighting through the day’s extended exhaustion.

Lady Margaret took flight through the stone corridors to the tower. Her determination rebelled against her aching legs. The weighted leather bag bounced against her. She struggled with a plan on how to circumvent her final obstacle. Beeswax from the lit hallway wall lamps wafted behind her. She came upon a guard attending his post. He watched her rapid advance and rose up with a spear in hand. His free hand moved out front, with a calloused palm facing the incoming noblewoman.

“Whoa, whoa, there. This area is restricted by the duchess’s orders. Turn around and head back, my lady.”

Lady Margaret fought through her labored breaths. Her hands went to her thighs for support. “Thank goodness you’re here. Our duchess,” she stammered, “is under attack from usurpers outside her bedroom. Several guards are dead. They sent me to get anyone who could help our lady.” Lady Margaret looked at him with panicked eyes betting her life on selling the lie.

He gripped his weapon tightly and rushed past her. She waited until the sounds of his jackboots evaporated. Lady Margaret pulled the keyring into her hand, feeling its weight. Will the Duchess dare allow her guards into the tower, she wondered. She entered the unlit staircase, re-locking the door behind her, and ascended upwards.

Moonlight pierced through the imperfect, diamond-shaped windowpanes onto the canvas-covered painting. Lady Margaret dropped her bag onto the pristine rug. She scrambled to pull the journal free. This will be my only chance. She looked up at the hidden painting. She placed the stolen book within the moonlight’s borders. Lady Margaret stepped to the pulley rope. The thick sheet rose off of the canvas into the shadows. She took a moment to catch her breath before attempting the impossible.

Lady Margaret studied the painting’s details. A queer fact became clear. Her head tilted with stunned confusion. Only the bridge and chasm were present. Both DO NOT ENTER signs were missing from view. How can this be possible, she wondered. The long minutes crawled through the tower room. Invasive, banging knocks echoed up from the entrance. Damn, I need more time to understand this change. Muffled voices intermingled with the dull pounding. None of them have a key, she surmised. I have some time.

Lady Margaret opened the massive journal. She began deciphering the coded information by moonlight. She fought against the guards’ incoming inevitability. Her mind hastily unraveled the mystery. So, this is how that works, she smiled with confidence. I’ll soon have all the time to decipher the rest. The door below opened.

“Lady Margaret. This is Duchess Ryiah.” Her words echoed up the stairs with uncontested authority. “You are to come down right now to be charged with theft and treason.” The older woman looked at the shadowed stairwell. Whispers of torchlight bounced against the walls.

“Send your guards up for me if you dare,” Lady Margaret taunted. She relied on the possibility that the Duchess wouldn’t allow her men to witness the treasure room.

“If you come down with the journal, I will make sure you receive the kingdom’s leniency and your life will be spared.”

“If you send one person up these stairs, I will gut your prized painting like a dinner swine.” Lady Margaret bluffed. Silence permeated between the women.

What is it you want, Lady Margaret?” The words flavored with bitter contempt.

The question caught her off guard. What do I want, she considered. Time to decipher the book. Time to investigate the nearby treasures. 

“I want to leave the castle freely. I want safe passage with a strong horse and provisions.”

Lady Margaret caught the hollow sounds of sneaking jackboots coming from inside the stairwell’s darkness. She sent them. Her heart raced. She packed the large journal into her bag. The leather satchel’s weight pushed against her shoulder. 

“The Royal Stable Master will have a mount and supplies for you in a short time.”

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

“I offer you the word of my throne, otherwise I might just lock the door and let time deal with my problem.”

Lady Margaret looked around the room. A glowing fruit caught within her vision.

“And I might see how delicious this enchanted apple tastes.”

“Don’t be so rash.” Her words came out with excitement. “Let us talk, Lady Margaret. I’m sure you have many questions about what is up there.” The Duchess ushered her words with finesse.

Lady Margaret decided to push her last chance. “I have a question, Duchess.”

The dull stairwell sounds grew closer. Faint crouching silhouette outlines interrupted the torchlight from below. Moonlight illuminated the painting’s artwork. Lady Margaret touched her finger against the canvas. Her digit passed through as before. She smiled.

“Yes, what is your question?” The Duchess’s annoyance caught in her question.

“Why does the bridge no longer have ‘do not enter’ signs at either end?”

“That’s not possible. You lie.” Anger seethed between each syllable.

“Ah, so you know of the painting. I hope you enjoy a further addition to its mystery.”

“Rush her, now,” the Duchess screamed.

The covert stairwell sounds transformed into a clear ruckus. Lady Margaret took a breath. I have no more options. She leaped through the air. Her body and bag passed through the painting’s innocence. The guards crossed beyond the last steps towards where she had stood. A treasure trove of enchanted items caught them in surprise, partially distracting their attention. They searched throughout the room as men with torches arrived in tow.

“Captain, bring her down immediately.”

“Duchess, she isn’t up here. It’s as if she disappeared into the moonlight.”

“Secure the room, Captain, I am coming up.”

The Duchess ascended the stone stairwell with her personal guard. She crossed the final steps into the room.

“As you can see -”

“Shut up, Captain.”

The guard lowered his head. The matriarch panned throughout the space. She looked at the painting. Moonlight illuminated the canvas. She summoned the ranking guard to her. She leaned into his ear.

“Captain, we are done here. Take these men to the Royal Physician. Have him remove their tongues before the new day. You will never speak of this to anyone or be caused to suffer the same fate. Do I make myself clear?”

The Captain nervously gulped at his new order. “Yes, Duchess, I will make sure it’s done as you ask.”

“Good. Come see me afterward.”

The Captain ordered his men downstairs. Duchess Ryiah sat on a stool under the high turret window. She contemplated the unbelievable through mixed emotions.

A young woman with a weighted, leather satchel took oiled form on the large canvas. She looked over her right shoulder at the Duchess mid-sprint towards the wooden bridge. Her long youthful hair caught wildly in the wind. A teasing, satisfied smile painted on her youthful face.

The Duchess fought a raging inclination to smash a ring-laden fist through the canvas, believing that doing so would likely end Lady Margaret’s life. She further considered that ruining the painting would rob herself of the inevitable satisfaction of hunting down her prey in the painting. She would seek out a secret copy of her father’s journal rumored to have been transcribed by the royal scribes. The Duchess lowered the large covering over the inflammatory painting. Moonlight reflected off the white sheet as dust danced in the moonlight. Her leather boots echoed down the shadowed stairs. The tower door slammed with an echoing thud below.

October 29, 2021 12:27

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6 comments

K R Stanfield
12:17 Nov 05, 2021

Man, this is really, really something! What a cool theme to a story. The good: your turns of phrase are magnificent. Things like "The Duchess ushered her words with finesse" are lovely. "carrying her fatigue like an anchor" is another I particularly enjoyed. The buildup of tension was great here, too! The only recommendation I have is perhaps to do a read-along out loud to catch repetition and small spelling errors - Royal Vintner was the one that stood out to me, and though I loved the imagery above, the word "fatigue" had some successive ...

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Pako Dunwhile
12:39 Nov 05, 2021

Thank you for reading and the observations. I'm constantly working on reducing word repetition. I work to research every aspect of a story I'm unfamiliar with. I learned that a vinter is one who makes or sells wine. It's an uncommon word, though a real one. I'm leaving the official definition below as an education, not a slight. Thank you for pointing out the phrases you enjoyed. I want my readers to have a fun experience and feel as close to the scene as possible. It's comments like this that keep me motivated to expand my skills and get be...

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K R Stanfield
22:01 Nov 10, 2021

Hi John! Sorry, was away for a bit - I'm with you 100% - I knew what a vintner was, and knew that you used the actual word properly, but it was the spelling that was off! The extra 'n' was missing in the main story, and in the comment there, too! You've got a strong, STRONG tempo. I don't know how one could learn that skill, and you're miles ahead because of it. Looking forward to your future projects!

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Pako Dunwhile
20:44 Nov 11, 2021

Thank you for the spelling error perspective. I will be more careful moving ahead. I truly appreciate the correction and I apologize for not seeing the error upon your immediate observation. I also appreciate the comment about tempo. I continue to work on pacing and making the story as emotionally and sensory-stimulating as possible. Please continue to make any and all constructive comments and if there is anything I can do in the literary realm, please let me know how I'm able to help you.

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K R Stanfield
21:22 Nov 11, 2021

Absolutely no apology necessary, John! I'm probably just the same as you, working to cut my teeth and become the best I can be. If I publish anything (I cannot say how often I will) and you have an opportunity to give it a once-over and spot something just the same, that'll be aces by me.

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Jon Casper
14:02 Oct 29, 2021

It is a real pleasure to read such creative work. I loved the depiction of entering the painting. Very visual. Excellent suspense and action. Wonderful story!

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